The marketing of gender roles

Photographer JeongMee Yoon did an excellent photo project where she photographed children with their toys and accessories to show how striking the pink and blue contrast is between girls’ and boys’ things. It’s called The Pink and Blue project and you can see it here.

blue and pink

Yoon writes an excellent analysis of what is happening in these photos on her site:

“My current work, The Pink and Blue Projects are the topic of my thesis. This project explores the trends in cultural preferences and the differences in the tastes of children (and their parents) from diverse cultures, ethnic groups as well as gender socialization and identity. The work also raises other issues, such as the relationship between gender and consumerism, urbanization, the globalization of consumerism and the new capitalism.

The Pink and Blue Projects were initiated by my five-year-old daughter, who loves the color pink so much that she wanted to wear only pink clothes and play with only pink toys and objects. I discovered that my daughter’s case was not unusual. In the United States, South Korea and elsewhere, most young girls love pink clothing, accessories and toys. This phenomenon is widespread among children of various ethnic groups regardless of their cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is the influence of pervasive commercial advertisements aimed at little girls and their parents, such as the universally popular Barbie and Hello Kitty merchandise that has developed into a modern trend. Girls train subconsciously and unconsciously to wear the color pink in order to look feminine.”

She goes on from there and also analyzes the change in colours during the 20th century. Before World War II, the colours were pink for boys and blue for girls. It’s obvious these colours are an arbitrary social construction and not an innate preference when you consider that the colours used to be exactly the opposite. She also talks about how the manufacturers of children’s toys teach girls to develop an interest in makeup, beauty and domestic chores and teach boys to develop an interest in science, robots and industry.

Her analysis is spot-on. She identifies that gender roles are being taught by marketing and consumer products, which are coming from globalized capitalism, and that they are successfully teaching young people their “gender,” right from the early years. She identifies that many children will grow out of wanting everything pink or blue as they get older, although a few of them keep this preference.

This all seems very obvious to me. As I write this blog post I’m thinking that I’m really not saying anything new and I’m probably beating a dead horse. But there are people out there who think that a little girl’s love for pink is an innate preference that has nothing to do with socialization, and that a little girl’s love for blue and science/sports toys makes her innately a boy. These people have obviously had their brains completely swallowed up by marketing. Any adult should have the media literacy skills to realize when they’re being marketed to, and to resist the messages coming from capitalism to buy more stuff. Responsible adults should know that buying stuff is not the key to happiness and that marketers will sell you a pack of lies to get you to buy their stuff. It seems to me this is really basic knowledge that everyone needs to exist in the world. The fact that people cannot see through a marketing campaign and cannot name it as capitalist propaganda designed to sell stuff means that neo-liberalism and capitalism are indeed winning. (Of course, we already knew that.) I try to analyze culture a lot on this blog, because that’s one of the things we have to do as lefties is analyze the culture that capitalism is creating. Step one in fighting back is analyzing the situation. Unfortunately, we never seem to get beyond step one, because so many people are invested in the notion of consumer choice as a path to liberation.

Children’s play doesn’t actually have to involve consumer products. I can’t believe that even needs explaining, but it does. There are tons of games and activities that don’t require any stuff at all, like tag, hide-and-go-seek, climbing a tree, or looking for insects in the yard. There are many games to be played with ordinary household objects, like building forts, or playing “school” or “house.” Kids have excellent imaginations and can turn anything into anything. A cardboard box can be a space ship that you can use to travel through space, and a couch can be a pirate ship under siege. Tables and chairs can be buildings and a living room can be an entire city. The fewer consumer products kids are playing with, the better. Consumer products kill the imagination because they tell you exactly how you should play.

I still have some photos of when I was ten and we had the best day ever flooding the backyard garden. It was a warm day in early spring and there was nothing planted yet, and we were allowed to put water in the dirt pile to make mud. We built little islands out of mud and brought out plastic toy boats and we drove the boats through the muddy water around the islands. Two girls and two boys did this and we had a great time and got all muddy. It would have been incomprehensible to me to call this a “boys’ activity.” It’s just an activity.

These kids with their rigid gender roles and “innate” love of certain consumer products would really benefit from being allowed to go outside and play.

Body Hair

Watching the podcasts from The Wanted Project has been incredibly moving and inspiring. Seeing women who are going around with beards and mustaches, not because they took testosterone, but because they have grown naturally, has been really eye-opening. I’ve only seen about 3 or 4 women with beards in my life. (I have never been to Michfest, sadly, due to having no money.)

Women don’t have the same facial hair as men, ours seems to be a bit lighter and softer, but it’s there. Ever since my partner entered peri-menopause, she’s been growing a beard. One of my female friends also has a beard but I’ve never seen it because she keeps it shaved.

I have just a little dark hair on my upper lip and my chin. It causes me distress all the time. I’m not a butch—I do try to be somewhat androgynous but I look like a woman and everyone can identify me as female immediately. So that means the hair on my face looks completely unacceptable. It looks like something that shouldn’t be there. I keep struggling over whether to remove it or not. I sometimes remove it and sometimes I let it grow for a while, but whenever I look in the mirror and see it I feel embarrassed. I know that when other people look at my face they’ll assume I’m neglectful or “letting myself go” (I hate that expression) for not removing the hair. I don’t want to remove it because there is no logical reason why I should—my natural face should be acceptable as is. My appearance shouldn’t be important—what’s important about people is their values and how they behave. If I buy hair removal products to remove hair that isn’t a problem, I’m buying into capitalist patriarchy. I should follow my own ideology, right?

I didn’t shave my legs during the fall, winter, or spring, and my full-grown leg hair wasn’t really bothering me. But of course I started wearing shorts to work recently because it’s summer and guess what, I shaved my legs. I felt like I had betrayed myself and my principles, but I did it. A friend of mine wore hairy legs to work and was suddenly told by her female boss that everyone was allowed to have no nylons on except her, she was supposed to wear nylons. This was a specific move to let her know that her natural leg hair was unacceptable. I think women police each other more than men police women about these things. Women who have bought into femininity, which is a lot of women, are very disturbed if anyone around them breaks the rules. They try to eliminate any nonconformity as fast as possible.

The result of all this conformity to the rules of makeup, shaving, plucking, waxing and hair dyeing is that most of us don’t even know what women look like without all this stuff. If we all stopped doing these things, all sorts of body hair would spring up that nobody even knew was there, grey hair would start appearing, and there would be much less of a difference between women and men’s appearances.

I know how I struggle with deciding how much femininity I want to reject or adhere to, and I know the struggle is much worse for other women. I was out with my partner yesterday and she refused to use a bathroom at all. There were lots of women in the women’s bathroom, so she didn’t want to go in there. She won’t use the men’s bathroom either. I offered to go in with her and stay near her, but she still waited until we got home. I thought about how hard it is for butch and nonconforming women. I can only see a window into it but I haven’t experienced it for myself.

What these women are doing in The Wanted Project is so important. Everyone needs to know that there are many ways of being a woman and that they are all acceptable. The rules of gender need to be smashed. Creating more identities so that women can identify as not being female is not helping, it’s hurting. Women come in all kinds, and those of us who are masculine- or androgynous-looking are women, too. We all have the right to be seen and heard and respected.